North America’s alternative music power couple Tom Shear and Mari Kattman are back as HELIX.
The former is the mastermind behind ASSEMBLAGE 23 while the latter has established career as a solo artist as well as collaborations with the likes of PSY’AVIAH, 3FORCE and BLACKCARBURING. Originally coming together for Shear’s 2014 EBM side project SURVEILLANCE, their debut HELIX long player ‘Twin’ came in 2018 but busy with their main musical outlets, an EP follow-up ‘Bad Dream’ didn’t appear until 2021.
Blessed with one of the most captivating voices in electronic music, Mari Kattman is on top form with the new HELIX EP ‘Unimaginable Place. Meanwhile Tom Shear creates soundscapes sympathetic to his leading lady while exploring textures and beats in a variety of dark styles without resorting to the calculated miserabilism of some acts.
The opening ‘Unimaginable Place’ title track is an infectious slice of electronic pop that is perfect for goth club dancefloors with its sparkling hooks and groovy rhythmics. The shadowy drama of ‘Lie To Herself’ though allows space for ominous piano in that present day Gary Numan vein while manoeuvring a staggered lattice of traps.
But sparkling arpeggios act as the draw into ‘Grey’ with the chime of eerie bells alongside bass frequency bubbles for a chilling Eurocentric atmosphere… it is kind of pretty although something far more sinister lies behind the façade that might have more than a few shades… to close, ‘Hurt Like Me’ provides percussively the hardest song on the EP as Mari delivers an impassioned vocal to suit the powerful but distressing backdrop.
There’s a strange appealing romance and hope about this ‘Unimaginable Place’ which presents the best and most immediate body of work that Tom Shear and Mari Kattman have made together as HELIX. Hopefully, there will be more…
The long awaited synth collaboration between the East and West of the United States is finally here.
HELIX marks the musical marriage between the Rhode Island songstress Mari Kattman and the man behind everything ASSEMBLAGE 23, Seattle-based Tom Shear.
Kattman, previously of DAY TWELVE and MARI & THE GHOST, debuted with her personal signature sound on a rather fetching long player, ‘Hover’, where she collaborated with Matt Echo. The record settled in a genre of its own and turned many musical heads, including Shear’s.
It wasn’t the first time that his compass pointed East, as the pair had worked together on his side project SURVEILLANCE, where Kattman provided her vocal skills on ‘Husk’ from ‘Oceania’. Tom Shear needs no introduction within the hard core lovers of electronica; being the musical, lyrical and vocal supplier of ASSEMBLAGE 23, which continuously provides top shelf synth offerings, appreciated not only by those “on the verge of collapse”.
It is therefore imaginable that such collaboration is bound to bring miraculous effects and show yet another side to the Seattle based producer. And indeed the new approach comes out on their debut ‘Twin’, especially with the opening ‘Widescreen’, where floatingly gentle melody creates the base for Kattman’s vocal journey further East.
If she’s out to snake whisper, she certainly succeeds, for ‘Anymore’ ushers a change of mood ear worthy a repeat play time. Subtly subdued, yet containing multiple layers of instrumentation courtesy of Shear, it provides an excellent canvas for the voice reminiscent that of Sharleen Spiteri’s. The power of ‘Bird Of Prey’ accents itself in this uptempo gem, where Shear goes vintage musically and on production, while Kattman channels her inner MADONNA, just like MECHA MAIKO had done on her debut ‘Mad But Soft’ couple of months back.
If you’re expecting ‘Kicking & Screaming’ to do what it says on the tin, you’ll be in for a disappointment. This piercing semi-ballad has plenty of subtle power, that’s best served with the addition of darkness, and perhaps it doesn’t prepare for the corker that is ‘Expensive Things’. Here Shear does what Shear does best: takes that beat and twists it into something amazing, adding a pinch of heavy synth and a dollop of ear teasing percussion, interloping with regularly appearing arpeggios and nudges of beats paying homage to vintage DM via ‘Shout’.
This could be a hard act to follow but ‘We Are’ does a good job regardless, changing the feel into a modern offering of off-beat hipster styles, leading into the school disco of ‘Like A Drug’. What SPECTRA PARIS did on ‘Retromachine Betty’, Mari Kattman does here; enhanced by electrifying guitar, fast paced rhythm and plenty of pink and fluffy synths.
While ‘I May Be Wrong’, HELIX keeps going and now Shear joins Kattman on vocals to make it right. This middle of the road track provides a delicate easy listening experience; star gazing and romantic, making Shear sound a tad like Peter Heppner, which is always a good move.
But the ripe beats return suddenly on ‘Live In My Heart’. And what a fast pleasure that is! Kattman goes quirky with her vocal provision and Shear shows he can do the club feel very well. Pure ASHBURY HEIGHTS on steroids, riding on Space Mountain, getting stoned… hang on, that’s LA based NIGHT CLUB… you get the idea!
As all good things have to come to an end, ‘The Beautiful Unseen’ ushers the wrap for the album. Slightly slower, deeper and marvellously executed, where the piano paves the way for the haunting voice and pointed synth, this closing track leaves plenty of thinking space and hope for continuation.
It comes as no surprise that Shear can deliver musically, it’s also not news that Kattman is a valid artist on her own, but those two twinned together provide higher levels of musical enjoyment.
While the debut offering from HELIX may feel like a mixed bag for some and too demure for others, let’s not forget that musical knowhow is deeply ingrained in the pair, and for their first full album as a newly found partnership, ‘Twin’ provides heaps of listening pleasure.
And if it’s too mainstream for you, go and indulge in ASSEMBLAGE 23 instead. Either way, you won’t miss out on the good thing.
Tom Shear, working under the alias of ASSEMBLAGE 23 and as the responsible parent of his side project SURVEILLANCE, has been active in the electronica field for over 20 years, being largely inspired by European synth acts, especially those celebrating a more industrial approach.
Although trying to showcase his take on synth pop in the era of the American rock and grunge domination wasn’t easy, ASSEMBLAGE 23 grabbed the existing fans of APOPTYGMA BERZERK, COVENANT and HAUJOBB by ‘Storm’ (pun intended).
Working from Seattle, Tom Shear has established himself as the daddy of harsher electronica and is celebrated in his native land, as well as Europe alike. Having recently released his eighth studio opus, ‘Endure’, backed by a rather impressive crowdfunding, he’s looking forward to coming back to the UK for some live shows.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is chatting to the man himself about past, present and future of ASSEMBLAGE 23.
‘Endure’ has been described as an unorthodox album for ASSEMBLAGE 23, how would you comment on that?
It’s funny, because people seem to fall into two camps. Some people think it sounds exactly like previous stuff and some think it sounds different. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I try to make Assemblage 23 consistent, but of course it is always evolving, too.
Would you say you prefer the hardware or soft versions of synths?
I prefer a combination of both. For me, hardware is more fun to use, but software offers convenience and portability. I can take hundreds of softsynths with me in my carryon bag on the airplane if I want. Try doing that with hardware. I think the technology is getting to the point where the sound differences between hardware and software are virtually indistinguishable, so really more than anything it is a question of personal preference.
Your love of melody is obvious on all of your releases. How are the tracks put together?
I keep an “ideas” folder on my computer. When I get the idea for a melody, or bassline, or chord progression, I sit down and quickly record it into the sequencer. After I’ve accumulated enough of these ideas, I sort through them and pick out the bits I feel are the strongest candidates and begin building the rest of the song around that initial sketch.
Under the veil of sparse optimism, darker tones always seem to emerge, do we really “brick by brick (we) construct our own personal hell”?
To a large extent, I think we do. Obviously, there are external things that can make your life hell – poverty, abuse, disease, etc. But we are the source of a lot of our own problems and hang-ups.
‘Compass’ was particularly lyrically dark…
I guess I never really noticed one album being darker than another, but the time I was writing that album was a pretty bleak time in my life, so I suppose that would make sense.
Unlike most bands of your genre, A23 songs are fairly long. Consisting of three verses, they seem to go on, as if to exhaust the subject in hand…
I don’t know. Most of my songs weigh in around 5 minutes, I think. FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY regularly has 7 and 8 minute tracks! Haha! It varies, but I do find that three verses tends to be just the right amount. Almost like the first, second, and third act in a movie or play.
Having an over two decades’ success in synth music, how would you describe the American scene nowadays?
It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, there’s more good bands coming out of the US than there has been in a very long time. On the other hand, it can be difficult for new bands to get a foothold, as the scene Is very saturated, so it’s harder to get heard. I guess that’s probably true worldwide.
Any modern favourites coming out of your neck of the woods?
I really like MR KITTY a lot. Unique sound and a very good performer. THE NEW DIVISION is a great synthpop act out of California. Mari Kattman out of Rhode Island is an amazing female vocalist who I’ve collaborated with, but whose own music is fantastic.
The now unfortunately defunct ALTER DER RUINE were doing great things. AEON RINGS from the NYC area make some really infectious synthwave.
What’s your favourite European gig destination and why?
It’s hard to choose just one. There’s certainly areas where we have bigger shows, but some places I look forward to playing because of the food, or that I get to see friends I don’t often get to see. Honestly, I just love playing Europe as a whole.
Is the ‘Endure’ tour going to be any different from your previous ones?
We’re playing a longer set and are playing some songs we’ve never played live before. We also worked really hard on improving in the past couple of years and the reviews from the US tour were generally that we’re sounding the best we’ve ever sounded, so I am optimistic!
Is SURVEILLANCE going to be an ongoing project for your more EBM work?
Yes. I plan to start work on the next one soon. I’ve got a number of ideas already sketched out.
You’re known for happily interacting with the fans of your work. How important is it for what you do?
Extremely important. I frankly don’t understand why more bands don’t do it, because it’s enormously beneficial. Interacting with your fans and being accessible is probably the best thing you can do to build a loyal fanbase. If it wasn’t for my fans, I couldn’t do what I love for a living, so I feel like it’s the least I can do.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to Tom Shear
Glasgow Ivory Blacks (30th March), Manchester The Zoo (31st March), London Electrowerkz (1st April), Oberhausen Kulttempel (2nd April), Frankfurt Das Bett (4th April), Leipzig Hellraiser (5th April), Kreuzberg Maze (6th April), Moscow Club Theatre (8th April) – please visit http://www.assemblage23.com/ for more information, support on all UK dates will be RAINLAND
Seattle based musician Tom Shear has carved a justifiably successful career over the past 20 or so years with acclaimed releases such as ‘Compass’ and ‘Storm’.
2012’s ‘Bruise’ album saw a move towards a more mature sound which was complimented by a remix disc featuring reworks by the likes of ex-COVENANT man Daniel Myer. In the interim, Shear returned to a harder EBM style with the side project SURVEILLANCE, made possible via a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.
The same approach has been deployed for the latest ASSEMBLAGE 23 release ‘Endure’, once again to similar success. This album sees that more sophisticated sound used on ‘Bruise’ and apply it to startling and in places, quite beautiful effect.
This is an unusual album in the ASSEMBLAGE 23 canon as it goes against not only the accepted genre types, but also in many ways what Shear himself has done before. This is evident from the start with an actual title track which is also an instrumental. It’s obvious the John Carpenter albums have been on heavy rotation in the Shear household, as this driving piece would not be out of place on the ‘Lost Themes’ releases.
Next up is an apocalyptic tale in the shape of ‘Afterglow’. One of A23’s main strengths, which stands them apart from many contemporaries, is the use of actual melody. Shear is openly a fan of many Synth Britannia bands and that is obvious on this, one of the album’s standout tracks. It’s here we get a first taste of one of those shifts in sound in the production on Shear’s vocals which foregoes the usual EBM / Industrial effects to allow a more upfront, dry performance.
This in turn throws Tom’s lyrics into sharper relief than before. These lyrics are especially fine on the next track ‘Bravery’ on which we are reminded that we all have self-doubt, fight personal battles and that “some days just waking up is an act of bravery…” – all this is underpinned by a thumping backing track.
Next up is ‘Salt The Earth’, a more straightforward EBM track which is not to take away from the strength of the songwriting, but placed on the album between ‘Bravery’ and the track that follows, it fails to stand out. ‘Static’ opens with a very un-A23 way with a plaintive piano motif, which is duplicated as the song builds by synth plucks and then strings. Again, the confidence that Shear has in his voice is demonstrated by the dry production he employs. ‘Call The Dawn’ and ‘Butterfly Effect’ act as strong album tracks, again enforcing the maturity of the overall delivery of both instrumentation and vocals. This is also true of the later track ‘Grid’.
Then comes one of the highlights of ‘Endure’, the excellent ‘Barren’; all of the parts that make up the album come together here beautifully to deliver a track that is in turn, a piece that can be listened to thoughtfully but also sounds fantastic through a club PA. This is destined to become a staple of A23 live shows for years to come.
After the aforementioned ‘Grid’, we come to the album closer ‘December’. Again Shear isn’t afraid to let his voice do the talking and carry the emotional weight of a song dripping sadness and regret belying the dance driven instrumentation.
So what of the 2016 incarnation of ASSEMBLAGE 23? It’s evident that this is an enormously enjoyable release. It stands with ‘Bruise’ as an example of what can be achieved by a musician working with a clear goal, that also delivers what his audience wants with a few surprises along the way.
This week, it was announced that once again VNV NATION will headline the 2017 Amphi Festival in Germany, one of the scene’s biggest events. It’s a surprise that this slot isn’t occupied by ASSEMBLAGE 23 as they have the tunes without the bombast employed by Ronan Harris and his band. ‘Endure’ is a highly recommended release.
American musician Tom Shear, primarily through the vehicle of his band ASSEMBLAGE 23, has spent over a decade building a career anchored in a personal relationship with his fans.
Those self same fans appreciation for his brand of harder edged electronic music, as showcased on albums such as ‘Compass’ and ‘Bruise’, was once again demonstrated in a massively successful crowd sourcing campaign for recent side project SURVEILLANCE.
Now with a newly released remix companion to that album ‘Oceania’, Shear chatted about life as a one man band, the challenges faced in his early years and the pros and cons of crowd sourcing…
Can you give us a brief overview your early years as a musician and ASSEMBLAGE 23?
Sure. My interest in electronic music was sparked by hearing GARY NUMAN’s ‘Cars’ for the first time as a child. Something about the sounds really grabbed my attention.
Late in elementary school, I’d mow lawns in the summer for cash and eventually saved up enough to buy my first synth, a Korg Poly-800. I eventually added a drum machine and a four-track cassette recorder to my set-up and that began my love of songwriting. The early stuff was all instrumental, as I was too shy to sing. But when I reached high school, I started recording music with vocals as well through an old guitar delay pedal. It was during this time I went to see DEPECHE MODE perform for the first time and they had a DJ spinning music in between bands that was playing industrial music. It was the first time I had ever heard it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Hailing from Seattle in the early 90s, how difficult was it being an electronic musician which runs counter to the recognised ‘Seattle Sound’ of the time?
Actually, I’ve only lived in Seattle since 2001. I grew up on the east coast and lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New York. But the effect was the same. Electronic music was very out of favor in the mainstream while grunge dominated everything for a few years. Most of the purely electronic industrial music at the time was coming out of Europe, and although it existed in the US, the more coldwave / metal guitar style of industrial was most of what got attention from labels. I got rejection after rejection, or worse, totally ignored.
This was before the internet really took off, so as an American, it was tough to find out how I could even submit material to the European labels. So it was a very frustrating time. My demos were getting actual airplay on college radio stations, people I sent the demos too were really enthusiastic, but the labels just weren’t biting.
What were those first few years like? What main challenges did you face in respect of getting your work heard?
Even before getting signed, I did my best to start getting my music out there, which basically meant mailing cassettes out to any college radio station, music zine, or interested person that I could.
The first things that officially got released were compilation tracks on American labels such as 21st Circuitry and Arts Industria.
Around the beginning of 1998, I finally got a label’s ear, which was the Gashed! Records label out of Canada. At that point, getting the name out and getting exposure became a bit easier. The label handled things like getting material reviewed, advertising etc, so I could shift my attention to getting out and performing live. We were lucky enough early on to get opening slots with really popular acts such as COVENANT and HAUJOBB… that got the ball rolling.
Had you always envisioned ASSEMBLAGE 23 to be a solo project or were there plans to develop a full studio band over time?
It was nothing I really thought about. I started out as a solo act out of necessity. Where I grew up, all anyone listened to was classic rock. Most kids in my school didn’t even know who DEPECHE MODE was. So I started out working alone and just never found a reason to add anyone else to the equation. I was really eager to learn, so doing all the work was a lot of fun to me. After awhile, I was pretty self-sufficient, so I just never really had a need to bring anyone else in on the creative end. Live, obviously, is a different story.
With that in mind what challenges were there in taking ASSEMBLAGE 23 live in those early days?
I’m not going to lie, we actually were very lucky in those early days. We were booked to open for HAUJOBB… they couldn’t get into the US – suddenly, we were the headliners. VNV NATION and APOP cancelled a show when we were to open for them for – yet again, we were the headliners and had access to these big crowds. That’s not to say we didn’t play some tiny shows or faced indifferent or outright hostile audiences in the early days, but I feel like a few lucky breaks gave us a bit of an easier time than many bands.
You have embraced the internet fully as a way of not only selling ASSEMBLAGE 23 product but also, with Facebook in particular, a mechanism for keeping in contact with your fans. How much of a boon and possibly problem has this been?
Musicians in general vastly underestimate the importance of having direct interaction with their fans. Before the internet, that wasn’t really practical. But with the ability to talk to people all around the world almost instantaneously, you suddenly have direct access to the people who are listening and (hopefully) buying your music.
I have a theory that if bands want to lessen the impact of file-sharing, they should interact regularly with their fans. My reasoning is, when fans get to see the personalities and daily lives of their favorite artists, they begin to see those artists as people just like them – not some ivory tower, unapproachable deity sleeping atop a mountain of cocaine and sports cars. Who would you rather support? The guy who takes times to answer questions and talk to you, or the one won’t talk to their fans at all, unless they pay for some retarded VIP package? The downside of this access to fans, and their access to you, is that there are definitely some unstable issues out there that can be difficult to deal with.
So the new project, SURVEILLANCE. What make this different from ASSEMBLAGE 23?
I keep several ‘ideas’ folders on my studio hard drive where I quickly sketch out musical ideas as they come to me, so I can go back and, if there is anything interesting there, develop them into songs. Obviously, not every idea I get is for an ASSEMBLAGE 23 song. Sometimes it’s something harder, sometimes it’s something more ambient or experimental. Anyway, I had a folder of material that was more EBM-focused and one day noticed I had enough of what I considered decent ideas to make an album. There are definitely elements of ASSEMBLAGE 23’s sound in SURVEILLANCE, but overall, the project is mainly influenced by the early EBM bands that got me interested in the style to begin with… FLA, FRONT 242, NITZER EBB etc. So the idea was to take those roots as inspiration, but give it a more modern polish.
You crowd sourced to fund the SURVEILLANCE ‘Oceania’ album, how long did it take you to decide upon the rewards in the package?
Most of them I came up with in the course of an evening. Before I launched my crowd-sourcing campaign, I studied others that had been successful (such as Matt Fanale’s for ‘Caustic’) and tried to look for common things among these successful campaigns.
So some ideas I got from other campaigns, some were just sort of obvious, and eventually, some were suggested by the fans and added. The most important thing is to offer fans something SPECIAL that they can’t just get off iTunes and to make a wide variety of pledge levels available. If your project is good, your fans will WANT to give you money. So give them the opportunity to do so. Have lots of reasonably-priced perks, but also offer some more expensive options if fans feel they want to support you that much more. The worst thing that can happen is no one bids on those perks.
Were you surprised at how quickly you hit target?
Astonished! I thought the amount of money I was looking to raise was do-able, but I expected it to take the full 30 days. Instead, I reached it almost within 24 hours. I think this is really another case of having a personal relationship with your fans being beneficial. Matt Fanale, who I mentioned before, is brilliant at this, and sure enough, his campaign did amazingly.
Given the negative press some crowd sourced projects have gathered, do you feel this is a valid way of funding a release? Would you do it again?
The tricky thing about crowd-sourcing is, it really has a limited shelf-life. I think it’s a great way of gauging interest in your project and getting it off the ground, but I think after that, the fans expect the project to be self-sufficient.
And if crowdfunding becomes more popular, there is also the risk that fans will just get sick of all the bands constantly asking for money. If I did use it again, I would basically use it as a glorified pre-order system for a project that was ready to ship. That way, people can just pre-order the album, or if they want something more special, they get that too. One thing I will say, however, is that a big campaign is a LOT of work to keep up with. I don’t recommend it unless you have time to put into it and are an organized person.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a one man band (and this isn’t exclusively from a music point of view)?
The workload, I guess. If I’m having a bad day or experiencing writer’s block, there’s no-one else to step in and take over. I don’t mind that, but it does mean the project lives or dies by your ability to get stuff done, and no one else’s.
You are DJing now, how does the preparation for a DJ set differ from a band gig?
When we put a set together for ASSEMBLAGE 23, it’s a very deliberate and planned thing. I generally try to make it up of the songs popular among the fans, material from the most recent album, and sometimes a surprise or two such as remixed versions, covers etc. When I DJ, I definitely rehearse in the sense of just mixing music, trying to find which tracks mix in and out of one another well etc. But I don’t plan what I’m going to play at all. I’ll generally choose a tempo I want to start my set at, and then just spontaneously choose tracks after that. It’s more fun that way.
Who are you listening to now? Any new bands you feel readers should give try?
GESAFFELSTEIN is probably the one I am grooving on the hardest at the moment; a very cool mix of old school EBM basslines, plodding techno beats and aggression.
There’s a band called BLASTROMEN I recently came across that sounds sort of like what would happen if MIND.IN.ABOX formed a KRAFTWERK tribute band.
I’m also loving the new CARBIN AIRWAYS. The band are kids… brother and sister in fact, and although I have a feeling there is a fair share of ghost writing going on, the material is great.
And if I can make a crass plug for my live band mates, ASSEMBLAGE 23 drummer Mike Jenney has just released a new album for his project ALTER DER RUINE, and it’s a stunner… utterly unlike anything they did before. Paul Seegers, my keyboard player, is also about to release an album for his project THY FEARFUL SYMMETRY which is very dream-pop sounding with lots of ambient guitar, big washy reverbs, and distant vocals. Even if these guys weren’t in my band, I’d love these albums.
What does the future hold for Tom Shear…?
I plan to attempt an entirely new level of baldness called Super Baldness.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Tom Shear